The Finishing Touches

I’m holding the last talk in the Craft of Research series on Friday. It will be devoted to the utterly mundane business of formatting and referencing properly. I should emphasize, however, that this business is normally conducted under the auspices of a “style guide”; that is, there is in fact something stylish about it. It’s a tough sell, I know; it is something that many students and scholars leave to the end as “chores”, thinking that only a very superficial person would care about margins, typography, and consistency in referencing. Surely it’s the ideas that matter! Perhaps they should remember that papers are not made of ideas. They are made of words — deliberately chosen and arranged for maximum effect. In any case, I have my work cut out for me.

Here’s something to keep in mind. It’s a well known fact about many examiners and reviewers that after reading the abstract and perhaps the introduction, they skip straight to the reference list to see if the authors that they would expect to find there, and the classic works they have written, are in fact listed there. You want to make sure this first impression is a good one. If you have in fact cited the texts they are looking for, you want to make sure they’re on the list; and you want to make sure that the list is in alphabetical order so that the reader can find what they’re looking for. But you also want to make sure that the reference list itself looks like the orderly bibliography it is supposed to be. You want to give the reader a sense of the orderliness of your study at a glance.

By a similar token, this should be an easy source of a particular kind of aesthetic satisfaction. Spending a few hours making sure that your reference list is complete and orderly is worth the effort if you give yourself enough time to actually enjoy it. Looking over a neat list of books and papers that you have spent the foregoing many weeks engaging with should feel good.

The same goes for the visual impression that any individual page of your paper gives off. You should be able to spend an hour or so just flipping through your paper and enjoying the way it looks. Reading random sentences (even out loud) should be a pleasant experience. And the text should “work” at the level of the references; a quote or fact should have a source, and the source should be easy to locate, first in the reference list, then in the library. Try this out on a few different pages.

Make sure that the effect of putting a source next to your own text is to increase your credibility. These days it is often quite easy to find a source while reading a text (especially if you have referenced it properly) and this ease is part of the authority of your text. You can check how well this works by picking some pages at random and finding the source (either by Googling or in the library’s databases).

Does spelling count? Yes. But that’s not all. A nice clean title page suggests an orderly mind that is confident about what is to follow. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether a generic cartoon does the same; maybe your supervisor has an opinion to share.) Page numbers and section headings are useful to the reader. The table of contents should match, yes, the contents. Figures and diagrams should be easy to decipher and look good on the page. (Learning how to do these things takes time but it is worth it. Don’t think the easy “automatic” solution is the only possible one and therefore the right one.) And they should be easily related to what you have written about them.

All in all, try to make your paper or thesis look like something that was carefully and deliberately made. You made it carefully and deliberately and there is no reason to give your reader any other impression. The few hours this takes are well spent, in part for the simple pleasure it affords. Enjoy it!

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